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Hillary's Pelosi Problem

By Jed Babbin

Hillary Clinton has a problem. Its name is Nancy Pelosi. Clinton's run for the White House is being built - as was her husband's - on the idea of a "new democrat" who accurately triangulated between liberal and conservative well enough to shroud liberal policy with a cloak of moderation. The cloak was so tightly-woven and the media so compliant that no matter what Clinton did - from his first presidential act ("don't ask, don't tell") to the "wag the dog" episode in the impeachment days - he escaped scrutiny. But no matter how hard Mrs. Clinton clings to the Clinton Cloak, Speaker-to-be Pelosi's Animal House will be sticking its head out from every fold.

The timing for Sen. Clinton couldn't be better, or worse. The country has just handed the Dems control of both houses of Congress, President Bush is swimming in circles on Iraq and for the next two years Clinton has the opportunity to win her spurs by accomplishing something substantive. If she is a leader, now is the time for her to show it. The pressure is on, because if she can't manage more than campaign fundraising between now and November 2008, she'll have a hard time getting to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Clinton knows that the 2006 vote was against George Bush and his Iraq policy, not for liberal nostrums peddled by her House peers. The problem for Clinton is Pelosi and her committee chairmen who are some of the most out-of-the-mainstream libs in the land.

Polls such as CNN's (reported by CQ Politics) analyzing election results in six of the most hotly contested states - Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia - show that self-described moderates voted for Democrats by margins from 52-65%. (CQ also reported that in nineteen of the twenty-eight House seats captured by the Dems, voters had favored Bush over Kerry in 2004). The new House Dems aren't a radical bunch. Among the Blue Dogs, "fighting Dems" and the rest, there are enough moderates that could form a core of rebels big enough to stall Pelosi's agenda. Pelosi has been dealing with this, so far, by threatening all sorts of horribles to be inflicted on those who don't toe her line, from rotten committee assignments to awful office space. The effect of that approach can only last a while longer.

Pelosi's performance to date hasn't exactly endeared her to the moderates. First, by backing Jack Murtha over Steny Hoyer for Majority Leader she made clear that she wasn't among those who are working to avoid the "cut and run" label on Iraq. Next, by waiting too long to cut Alcee Hastings away from his expected Intelligence Committee Chairmanship and then appointing Silvestre Reyes of Texas in his place, Pelosi again showed a lack of care that must embarrass the moderates. Reyes's only accomplishment to date is proving his lack of knowledge about Islamic terrorist groups, confusing Sunni (al-Queda) and Shia (Hizballah) in a way that maximized embarrassment. Now Reyes, and the committee chairman Pelosi can't be blamed for - those old liberal lions - are about to seize the media's attention with splashy "investigative" hearings that will show again and again that they are liberals, not moderates.

Reyes has announced plans for a January hearing to investigate the "state of intelligence" provided in support of the troops in Iraq. How he can do this in an open hearing is not obvious. Will his committee leak what it can't publish? Since 9-11, sources on Capitol Hill and in the intelligence community have been insisting that major leaks - such as the NSA terrorist surveillance program - came from Congressional sources. Will Reyes's ascendancy make this worse, or better? Don't bet on "better."

Reyes isn't the only new (old?) committee chairman planning splashy hearings in January. There's a decade of pent-up populist outrage that the returning chairmen will treat us to. John Dingell's "investigative" juices have been pent up for too long. His subpoenas to Defense Department officials typically aim to score sound bites on the evening news on some real or imagined scandals. Henry Waxman will be chasing the pharmaceutical companies (to retard medical research and forestall production of miracle cures for dread diseases) and Jack "Redeploy to Okinawa" Murtha will be, on January 9th, trying to manufacture a scandal out of the desires of the Army, Navy and Air Force for more money than they are getting.

Murtha, who spent the past year remaking himself into the Dems loudest anti-war voice, wants to show how the Iraq war has to be abandoned or we will soon find our Army and Marine Corps so worn and reduced that it can't fight anywhere. The Dems - especially those who want to be president - need to think about Murtha, Dingell, Waxman and the rest because these old timers can destroy their chances in 2008.

Murtha will succeed scoring points on the evening news and in all the 527 Media because the media mentionables are even more liberal than he. But when Murtha's hearing devolves - as it must - into another argument between false choices ("stay the course" vs. "cut and run") voters will get a look under the Clinton Cloak. They will see Democrats - some of them the same people who caused us to cut and run from Vietnam - trying to do the same now, without a care about the message of terrible weakness they are sending our enemies.

Last week, in a lunch session with one of our most senior military officers, he expressed disgust and exasperation at people (he didn't mention Murtha by name) who are telling the world - including Iran, North Korea and others - that we don't have the strength to fight in Iraq or anywhere else. He said, pointedly, that if we had to - right now - we could defend South Korea. It wouldn't be pretty, he said, but we'd win. Those such as Murtha incite our enemies to take actions they wouldn't if we weren't weak.

Last year, when Murtha was saying our army was "broken" because of the strains imposed by the Iraq conflict, I visited Iraq to see for myself. Yes, the troops are under strain. Yes they are tired. But - and this is one of the many things the media declines to report - reenlistment rates in combat units is off the charts. Enlistees may have to wait their turn.

One Army First Sergeant I'd interviewed before told me he wanted to get home and stay there for a while. That problem can, and will, be fixed by growing the Army and the Marines. But what that sergeant told me had to be placed in context with what a youngish Army colonel told me that same night.

I asked him if the strain of long, repeated deployments would break the Army. His heated reply is still etched in my mind: "If you want to break this army, break your promises to it." Promises, he explained, like finishing the job in Iraq, like winning the war wherever it has to be fought.

Can Murtha and the rest be restrained? Not by Sen. Clinton, he can't. Clinton can't win in 2008 without all the moderates who voted Democratic this year. She won't get them, because for two years her party will showcase its hyperliberal best, Jack Murtha and the rest.

Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a contributing editor to The American Spectator and author of Showdown: Why China Wants War with the United States (with Edward Timperlake, Regnery 2006) and Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe are Worse than You Think (Regnery 2004).

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